In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Does hell exist or do we create our own? This is the larger question screenwriter Scott Kosar asks as we watch machinist Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) stumble through his disintegrating world in this psychological thriller inspired by introspective mindbenders like Roman Polanski's The Tenant and Wim Wenders's The American Friend. From the moment we glimpse Trevor's freakishly emaciated frame it's obvious that something is eating him away from the inside the same thing responsible for his chronic insomnia. With apparently no Nytol or sleep aids available in his zip code a strung-out Trevor continues working at a dangerous industrial facility until he causes an accident that costs a coworker his arm. When no one recalls the imposing bald man whom Trevor claims distracted him during the incident he is ostracized by his coworkers and ultimately fired. He tries to find comfort in a sympathetic hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has fallen in love with him and a kind waitress and single mom (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who works at his favorite all-night diner but even they offer little solace as his paranoia mounts. What is real what is memory and what is imagined? Trevor clings to the last shreds of his sanity before he finally faces the truth about the only demon that matters--the one with the tortured face staring back at him in the mirror.
Christian Bale is one of the finest actors of his generation and as evidenced by his total immersion in this role the most committed. After having seen Bale's buff physique on display in movies like American Psycho and Equilibrium he is a fright to behold after losing 63 pounds with concave stomach protruding ribs and hipbones jutting out like handlebars. "I could make a whole other movie on the subject of guilt just from my experience of watching this man reduce himself to 120 pounds " says director Brad Anderson. Bale who claims he simply stopped eating for the role was attracted to the character because Trevor is a man stripped to his bare bones literally and otherwise. "Trevor is consumed with anxiety and lives with this intense fear that something awful is always just about to happen " says Bale. "He fears he's the butt of some great cosmic joke. We all know how powerful a combination sleep deprivation and suppressed emotion can be. It takes him to places that are terrifying and monstrous but also incredibly revealing." In supporting roles Jennifer Jason Leigh revisits the damaged-goods gal she does so expertly and Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon provides the only soothing visage in the film's grim landscape.
If you've seen Brad Anderson's creepy Session 9 you know the director has a talent for building a sense of quiet dread. The same can be said of The Machinist where everything from a ticking clock to a hangman game on Post-It notes starts to seem menacing. Inspired by the camera angles of Hitchcock the surrealism of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu as well as film noir Anderson constructs a muted washed-out shadowy world for his ghostly main man to haunt. "I wanted the movie to feel out of time other-worldly from a different era or place " says Anderson. "You never quite get a grip on where or when in time things are happening and that was intentional. It's a modern Kafkaesque world a nightmare dreamscape that draws horror from everyday existence."